Faouzi Ghoulam’s cross floated in invitingly from the left flank as time ticked away for Napoli at Marassi. Gonzalo Higuain soared to meet it, but as fate would have it, the Argentine entirely missed the ball, tumbling to the turf. Instead, Duvan Zapata headed the sumptuous assist into the ground and beyond Sampdoria goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Higuain rose from the ground with a triumphant pump of his fist while his fellow South American striker wheeled away in celebration.
Rafa Benitez, however, spared no such sign of relief. The Napoli boss nervously checked his watch instead – two minutes of second half stoppages left, with his side now level at 1-1 playing a man down. The final blast of the whistle would soon come, no decisive strike having been found to dramatically secure three points.
The result from Monday night at Marassi has left the battle for third place in Serie A a wide-open drama after 13 games. Napoli and Genoa sit locked on 23 points – the southern side owning the head-to-head tie-breaker – with Sampdoria just a point behind. Only six points separate third-place Napoli from twelfth-place Palermo, with AC Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina and Inter among those in the chasing pack. With a third of the season gone, there’s simply no clear favourite to grab Italy’s final Champions League spot.
Prior to the season, Juventus and Roma’s dominance at the top looked a foregone conclusion. Thus far, this assumption has been proven correct. Already the two Scudetto contenders have broken away from the competition, leaving those in their wake to duke it out for what’s left to be had of the spoils.
The outcome of Monday’s tilt between Napoli and Sampdoria is a microcosm of how the race for third has gone up to this point. No side have been able to truly distinguish themselves, while the Marassi duo of Genoa and Sampdoria themselves have arrived to crash the party.
Napoli and Inter were expected to be the primary contenders. Yet it’s been stop-start for both clubs. Benitez’s Partenopei still appear to lack cohesion in his second term at the helm. A terrible start gave way to improved form, only for the same defensive mistakes that have plagued them since before Benitez’s reign to quickly resurface to punishing effect. Inter, on the other hand, saw fit to dismiss former Napoli head coach Walter Mazzarri late last month. The side looked dysfunctional at best and Mazzarri had lost the dressing room. Roberto Mancini returned to take over, but after the weekend they sit six points out of third place.
Mancini found out just how much work he has to do at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday. The Nerazzurri twice clawed back from a deficit to draw level at 2-2 with a half-hour to play, only to capitulate as Roma secured a 4-2 victory. The Giallorossi had those moments of quality it takes to consistently win in their locker, unleashing them at the right time. Inter, by comparison, did not. The gap between the top two in Serie A and the rest was in turn underlined. Beyond that, Inter have plenty of work to do just to get back to Napoli’s level on the table.
And what can be said of Sampdoria and Genoa? Their respective head coaches, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Gian Piero Gasperini have done phenomenal work. Both haven’t been afraid to rely on youth in an age when bosses are quick to shy away from trusting youngsters – and the positive results are plainly there for all to see. At a time when the city of Genoa has been reeling from floods that have devastated the charming port in the northwest of Italy, the two teams have given embattled residents hope.
Unfortunately, there is still cynicism to behold in a prosperous time on the pitch. Genoa and Sampdoria simply can’t be expected to keep up their current pace. The competition is fierce and the likes of AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina all have deeper squads among others. The Genoese sides have made their livings off of tactical discipline, pressing and hard work – but as injuries and fatigue set in over the long season, it’s difficult to see them keeping it up.
Like the cases of Napoli and Inter, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina have plenty of questions about them despite carrying more weight than their Genoese counterparts. For Milan, defence and experience are the primary concerns. The Rossoneri can score – 23 goals in 13 matches is good for fourth in Serie A – but so far they’ve conceded 17 times as well. While he was a legendary player, Pippo Inzaghi is a novice coach and his side reflect that fact when they take the field. They make too many mistakes and often look to lack instruction from a tactical standpoint.
Consistency has been the bane of Lazio’s season. Losing three of their first four, Stefano Pioli’s side then went six games unbeaten – winning five of these contests. Complacency then set in and the Aquile have picked up one point from their last three matches – two of which were against relegation candidates in Empoli and Chievo. Pioli is still adjusting to life at a bigger club after leading the likes of Bologna and Sassuolo in the past. Whether he’s truly cut out for life in the top five remains to be seen.
Fiorentina too have struggled for stability. Losing Giuseppe Rossi long-term was again was just the tip of the iceberg. Mario Gomez has also been bitten by the injury bug and finally scored his first goal of the season at the weekend. Crucial component Borja Valero hasn’t been able to hit the highs in midfield, while Josip Ilicic has brought soap opera-level drama everywhere he’s gone for months. Typically, Vincenzo Montella’s sides have faded in the second half of the season, but this time around getting off the mark has been the issue. The Viola have now won two in a row and may be on the road to recovery, but the jury is still out in truth.
What observers in Serie A really want to know is which club will step up in the end. There’s a void following Juventus and Roma in Italy – but the chasing pack would do better to see it as an opportunity. Most thought it was there for Napoli to seize, the Partenopei possessing the most quality after Juventus and Roma. Yet the Partenopei haven’t fully convinced – look no further than the last-gasp effort needed to nick a point against Sampdoria.
The crowd remains tight, the key to breaking away from it consistency. The common thread between the sides fighting for third is an inability to grind out wins when not in top form – if one or two outfits were able to do so, the picture would be a bit clearer at the moment. It’s nearly Christmas and Serie A is still waiting for the top contender for third place to stand up. The prize? Qualifying for the Champions League play-off round, of course, along with the pay and prestige that accompany it. That may not be the Scudetto, but it’s certainly worth fighting for – who will step up to seize the moment remains to be seen.